Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Let A Demon Show You the Light

C.S. Lewis image from
I've just read C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters. Twice. He's a British Christian scholar from the WWII era who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia and is probably sexist, homophobic, racist, etc.-- but maybe not; at least none of that is obvious in this book, and there is much that is speaking to me.

I was led here by my imaginary dead lover David Foster Wallace, my current favorite writer because he wrote one of the most amazing books I've ever read: Infinite Jest. I fell a little in love with him while reading that volume, and a little more while watching a humble and charming DFW being interviewed by a German woman whose accented voice sounds so lovely and alluring in this video. (Beware: it's part one of nine, and addicting.)

In another interview somewhere else, my imaginary dead lover said Screwtape was his favorite book, so I determined to read it.

Lewis writes of a world I heard about in my youth, in which Heaven and Hell exist, and God and Satan battle over each human's soul. The twist is Lewis writes the book from Satan's point of view, or rather Screwtape's, who is a high-level bureaucrat in the "Lowerarchy" and is instructing his nephew, Wormwood, a novice "tempter," on how to subtly and surreptitiously corrupt the soul of an innocent man.
Wormwood being instructed by Screwtape
in a theatrical production; image from

No extravagant evil is required for Hell to gain possession. Peevishness is just as good as murder for the job. In fact, Screwtape advises Wormwood to focus on encouraging the smaller sins--selfishness, dishonesty, pride--in his "patient," since they are so much easier to achieve.

Reading this book, I realize how confusing our modern world is, and how complicated to make personal decisions without these larger-than-life archetypes to light the way.

I like to see myself as sophisticated, able to discern the difference between gradations of gray, unlikely to be fooled by simplistic black-and-white representations of the world.

But Lewis, a very intelligent and accomplished man--Oxford and Cambridge scholar, author of more than 30 books--proposes we do just that: separate all things into one camp or the other. Every step you take is either a step towards God or away from Her. (And by "God" I have no idea what I mean, except perhaps the whole point of everything.) (And the gender change is mine, of course.)

Lewis goes on to posit that God created all the pleasures, which She sincerely wants us to enjoy. Smoking and drinking, as I read it, are not "sins" if undertaken with a joyful attitude. But Screwtape and his league of tempters work to pervert all God's pleasures by twisting them inside out, or turning them into habits, which Lewis describes as things that are harder and harder to forego even as they provide less and less real pleasure.
Screwtape composes a letter;
image from

The lesson is simple: Habits are bad; Pleasure is good. Pleasure is so good, in fact, that any real pleasure we are able to create for ourselves leads us farther from Hell and closer to Heaven.

Mid-book, when the human's soul seems to be slipping through Wormwood's fingers, Screwtape admonishes his nephew: "you first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there--a walk through country he really likes, and taken alone. In other words, you allowed him two real positive Pleasures. Were you so ignorant as not to see the danger of this?"

This viewpoint is a revelation to me--the opposite of my early Catholic inculcation that God wants us to suffer, that suffering brings us closer to Heaven. Not so, this book suggests. Or at least, not only that. It's also bliss. It's exaltation.

Sitting in the sun while waiting for my son to finish a phone call the other day, I got a vision of myself standing by a broad river. Then I saw my body levitating slightly, maybe three feet, off the ground. It seemed the simple pleasure of enjoying the sun on my face was bringing me closer to God.

In my horoscope for 2013, Rob Brezsny advises me to "ramp up [my] capacity for pure enjoyment" in the coming year. That sounds like it fits the plan. The trick will be discerning "pure enjoyment" from the sexy come-ons of disease-addled facsimiles, all dressed up in their finest and disguised as fun.

I am an old woman, but there is still so much that I want to do, so much I want to understand.

I have stale habits of thought and body that I want to shed in the coming year (and the new Mayan era), but not via "the conscious fume and fret of resolutions and clenched teeth, but the real centre, what the Enemy [by which Screwtape means God] calls the Heart."

I am praying that I will be able to hear my own Heart above the cacophony of Screwtape's clever confusions this year.

Come, pray with me.

Come, listen for your Heart.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Welcome to the 14th b'ak'tun

On this day of great significance on the Mayan calendar, I welcome the New Era and pray for healing for our planet and all the people on it. If I understand the Long Count Calendar correctly, we have been part of the 13th b'ak'tun since a mythical Creation date of August 11, 3114 BC. That 5,000-year era ended on Dec. 20, 2012. On Dec. 21, we moved into the 14th b'ak'tun.  

Let us learn to love here.
Copal--the traditional incense of Mexico--burning in three-legged pots. Image from

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Is This Love?

I want to know what love is. So many stories swirling through my head. A relative leaves his wife of 30 years for a younger woman who makes him feel awake and alive. Is that love? She dumps him and he returns to his wife, caring for her gently when time disables her. Is that love? A friend is married five times, and five times enthralled with each new husband's magic. Is that love? Another friend leaves her long-term angry husband and promptly falls for a woman, exchanging depression for a suitor's anxiety 
I know baby love. Yes. It's so easy to love a warm, cuddly creature without wiles or guile, who cries when she's unhappy and smiles when she is glad--who depends on you for life itself. That love is unquestionable. That love is assured.

But what about this other, grown-up love? Does it even exist? I want to know the answer. I want to understand it in my bones, my tissue, my lymph and blood. I want to feel it in my ligaments and tendons, my muscles and fat--in the strands of my long silver hair, down to the very tips. I want to know it in the callouses of my footpads and mucous lining of my nose. I want the goddess to whisper it into the whorl of my ear. I don't want to wonder.  I want to know!!! 

The Greeks depict Love as a beautiful woman, married to a hardworking cripple, having a long-term affair with a violent, brutish man. She also has other lovers, mortals whom she might turn into a flower or a constellation if he displeases. Love is disloyal and capricious. She is also the goddess of Beauty. Are they inseparable? Do we only love that which is alluring, enchanting? Does that make love superficial? A trick with smoke and mirrors? An actress in full make-up on an artificial stage?

Then there's Love's son, the mischievous bow-boy, wrecking havoc where he will with his arrows,   enjoying the trouble he causes when he makes people fall in love with the most unlikely recipients--an ass, a friend's wife or husband, oneself. Did the Greeks know something we are missing? Is romantic love a kind of insanity? A pre-pubescent boy's joke?

Buddha and Jesus both said that love is universal--that we shouldn't love one person more than another. We should love everyone. Love everything. Does that make romantic love a failing? A trap? A misleading sidetrack on the one true path?

Last night at the restaurant, my love frowned and stared into space, unhappy with the service, unhappy with the menu, unwilling to make light conversation--a grumpy old man.

Then this morning, under the covers, his skin was warm and pliant. I grasped his hand and held it in both of mine at my chest. So many images swirling through my head: food he cooked for me; homes he repaired for me; paychecks he brought home to me; the family sitting in a darkened waiting room while I had surgery for cancer; the births of each of our three children, and the surprising words he whispered at the head of the bed that first time, holding my hand, helping to take me through the pain: "Swim. Swim to the top."

My life is like a long swim underwater: voluptuous, graceful, alluring, but with my breath held, with that slight anxiety that I might not make it back up to the top in time, might never feel my head burst through the surface into air and light.
The first image is a 1560 painting of Aphrodite, Eros, and Ares by Paris Bordone, the second is La Primavera by Botticelli. I found both of those on the Schmoop website, here.. The woman underwater I found by googling "underwater swimming" but can't site the source because now google is telling me it's me! Yikes!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Death Angel

A 14-year-old girl was beheaded in Afghanistan last week for refusing a marriage proposal. The suitor and his brother grabbed Gastina (no last name) when she went to a well near her home to fetch water and cut through her throat with a hunting knife. They are under arrest, but it's not clear if they'll be punished. I read the story and saw this picture at  The Daily Beast.

Afghan women walk near the district police headquarters in the Kunduz province. (Johannes Eisele, AFP / Getty Images (FILE) )

The photo reminds me of Margaret Atwood's novel Handmaid's Tale, which describes a future in which the religious right takes over the U.S. and Canada and forces women into slavery, requiring they dress according to their rank in the new society. Fertile women, rare in the future, wear long, billowing red dresses and veiled hats signifying their wombs. Men of high rank impregnate the red women--the handmaids--in a religious ritual based on the Bible story of Abraham and his wife Sarah, who told him to make her maid pregnant when she couldn't conceive.

The novel impressed me. Reading it feverishly years ago, I thought over and over, "This could happen here!" Living in the Bay Area, it's easy to believe that we have evolved beyond primitive misogynistic ideas. We see women with power in the news every day. Both our senators are women. The former speaker of the house came from our town. Marissa Mayer lives in a hotel penthouse in San Francisco and was hired away from Google while pregnant to be Yahoo's CEO.

But humankind doesn't always progress forward. Heard of the Middle Ages? World Wars I and II? And it's not like we've run out of extremist ideologues who lust for power.

Anything, it seems, is possible on this planet. Human beings are capable of all manner of evil.

Malala is shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan for advocating that girls should be able to go to school. Marita is kidnapped and sold as a sex slave in Argentina, provoking her mother's lifelong search. Eastern Congo is dubbed the rape capital of the world.

I have high school students who tell me they've never experienced gender discrimination, and for that I am glad. But I wonder if they even recognize when their rights and freedoms are being threatened, by this year's efforts to limit women's earning power and healthcare options in the War on Women, by a campaign to give embryos rights, even by something as seemingly innocuous as pop celebrities like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry saying they are not feminists.

Not feminists?

According to Wikipedia, Feminism is a movement pursuing equal social, economic, and political rights for women. Isn't everyone a feminist? What sane human being could disagree with these goals?

And I also wonder about the three women in this picture. Who are they? What are they feeling beneath their acres of cloth?

The thin white trees, the bare brown earth, the door slightly open in the tall clay wall, all are eerily beautiful--and frightening.

The way the far woman's black burka billows like wings on an angel of death when she whispers past...